Gloriosa superba is a show-off of a flower in flamboyant variations of scarlet, orange, hot pink and yellow. Commonly known as the flame lily, this exotic beauty is not a shrinking violet. In a cut flower arrangement, gloriosa is a stunner, with wavy petals shaped like long fingers curved into a loose fist.
A tuberous perennial vine native to Africa and Asia, it also grows as a weed in the humid, hot summers of southern Louisiana.
To prove the point, Jeanette Bell held up a bud vase with two gloriosas and pointed to a chain-link fence lining the perimeter of her Central City garden. It was a humid late July morning with a ceiling of gray clouds threatening rain. Along the fence, gloriosas added a riot of color.
“The common gloriosa lily can cost up to $5 a flower when you buy it in bulk,” Bell said. “Oranges can cost up to $10 a flower. And you can’t import that flower without pesticides.
“I can grow them without pesticides, and florists can come here and cut exactly what they need, when they need it, and when the flowers are at their best,” she said.
Locally grown. Seasonal picking. Without pesticides. Sound familiar?
The mantra of the local food movement is heading to flower fields.
Decades ago, this philosophy began to open eyes to farming practices and raise questions about how and where food is grown. Now, a nascent cut-flower growing industry in New Orleans hopes to get consumers to think as much about where the bouquets they buy come from as about the food they eat.
Over the past year, several local flower growers — all growing on small urban lots — have formed the New Orleans Flower Growers Association to pool resources and share advice. The group’s farmers use sustainable practices, without the synthetic herbicides and pesticides typical of the commercial flower industry.
By selling locally, they hope to reduce the carbon footprint of the average bouquet to tiptoes.
The vast majority of cut flowers sold in the United States today are imported from Colombia, the Netherlands, Kenya, Israel and other points around the world.
If you pick up a bouquet at the grocery store, it’s more than likely to come from South America – about 2,000 miles from New Orleans; Colombia supplies nearly 70% of the flowers sold in the United States
“In Colombia, they spray fungicides and pesticides, even when there are workers in the area,” said Denise Richter of Pistil & Stamen, a horticultural farm she operates with Megan McHugh in Central City and Gentilly. “That’s why we’re keen on doing it. We want to create an alternative to the conventional flower industry, and we’re beautifying devastated unused spaces at the same time.”
Each of the local farmers in the association has slightly different goals. Some, like Richter and McHugh and Marguerite “Margee” Green of Cow Apple Horticulture in St. Roch, offer cut flowers and arrangements directly to weddings and events.
Jeanette Bell of Fleur De Eden – who is also Green’s partner – wholesales to local florists and supplies herbs to restaurants.
Nola Tilth by Megan Webbeking in New Orleans East is a community garden as well as a flower farm.
Each of these farms offers flowers on GoodEggs.com, the online farmers market service.
“In New Orleans, there really hasn’t been any flower growing,” said Green, a licensed florist who earned a degree in horticulture from LSU and is garden director at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. . (NOCCA is developing a half-acre vegetable and flower garden for use in its culinary and other programs.)
“My passion is to make someone’s wedding day beautiful,” Green said. “And we can grow flowers to do that in New Orleans.”
“A cultural change”
Most flower association growers are relatively new farms, founded within the last couple of years. But Jeanette Bell was way ahead of this trend.
Over a decade ago, the soft-spoken gardener began growing roses, lilies, lavender and other fragrant flowers and herbs on a once dilapidated plot, now laid out in a manicured parterre.
Interest in the less frequented bouquet is finally catching up with her.
“I don’t like to use the word trend,” said Debra Prinzing, the Seattle-based author of “The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers” and “Slow Flowers” and founder of SlowFlowers.com, a Free online directory site to help consumers find flowers grown in the United States.
“I like to call it a cultural shift,” she said. “It’s a growing awareness of where our flowers come from. Food is one step ahead… It’s the same customer who will ask in a restaurant, ‘Where was this salmon caught or raised? ‘ What’s the mile of the food? What’s the mile of the flowers?”
Foodies and gardeners “take them first,” Prinzing said.
But even the White House is figuring it out.
At a February State Dinner hosted by President Obama for French President Francois Hollande, the South Lawn of the White House was adorned with sprigs of flowering quince grown in Mississippi, weeping willows from New Jersey, Scotch broom from Virginia, blue and purple iris from California. and alocasia, equisetum, nandina and Florida green liriope.
From blight to bloom
Prinzing estimates that there are approximately 1,500 flower and foliage farms, small and large operations, across the United States. California, with its year-round growing season, leads the way, with more than 70% of U.S. growers located there, she said.
Louisiana, although far behind California in number of farms, has a similar advantage with a long growing season; even in the most insect-infested and humid depths of summer, New Orleans growers say they can get beautiful blooms.
On a recent afternoon, evidence of this claim was visible on the corner of OC Haley Boulevard and Thalia Street. The land was a former vacant garden gone wild when Richter and McHugh took it over with the help of Parkway Partners. Now it’s bursting with vanilla marigolds (the color becomes paler as the flowers age), dahlia-flowering zinnias, red and orange okra (bright pods add textural interest to arrangements), red cotton ( “The cotton flowers are gorgeous,” Richter says, “but we love them for the bolls”) and bright yellow rudbeckias.
“Every day we have people stopping by to say, ‘It’s so beautiful,’ and ‘Thank you for being around,'” Richter said.
A few blocks from OC Haley, Richter and McHugh are also gardening on a piece of land “chest-high with weeds and crumbling cement foundations,” when they got permission from its landlord, the Mission of New Orleans, to plant on it.
This summer, Pistil & Stamen also took over another Parkway Partners space in Gentilly. With the three locations, they have planted a variety of roses, bulbs, perennials and self-seeding annuals so they can supply customers year-round.
On the Thalia site, the garden is landscaped with buried flowerbeds enriched with algae and fish emulsions. “You want the soil to be as healthy and alive as possible,” Richter said. “We are not certified organic, but that is our founding policy and belief.”
Nearby, on her land on rue Baronne, Bell uses Algoflash, a natural mineral fertilizer from France in her garden and avoids pesticides, although she recognizes that insects are a constant battle. “I can control the problems because I’m a full-time gardener,” she said.
A few years ago, Bell was vacationing in Waikiki Beach. The lobby of her hotel featured huge bouquets filled with flowers grown in Hawaii. “They changed the flowers every day,” she said. “Just imagine if hotels and restaurants in New Orleans used local flowers. It’s possible.”
‘Not like any wedding bouquet I’ve ever seen’
When Allison Guidroz got married three years ago in Baton Rouge, she wore a J.Crew wedding dress, opted for ice cream made with fresh, local produce instead of a traditional groom’s cake, and snuggled up. looks to Cow Apple Horticulture for its bouquets.
“The look I wanted was a wilder look, something different from a standard rose bouquet,” she said. “Margee grew these beautiful zinnias for me. Some were half one color and half another color. I had lots of sunflowers too. They were beautiful.”
Local growers have a more limited variety of flowers, depending on the season, to offer brides. But it was not a deterrent for Guidroz.
“Margee was doing the look I wanted, but it was also an environmental choice. We believe in what she’s doing,” Guidroz said. “We wanted it to be a natural and relaxed wedding, and for the local flowers to fit in perfectly.”
Educating brides on what flowers are available in what seasons is part of the job of local growers. “We had a wedding recently,” Richter said, “and the bride wanted eggplant and saffron orange colors. If we were using conventional flowers, we’d just go and order them everywhere. But instead, we worked with her . We said his ‘Okay, we understand your color story, now let’s find something to complement it.'”
When Blake Lee Pate married at Lake Vista United Methodist Church in 2012, she carried a bouquet of white roses and tiny sunflowers. Her bridesmaids hugged pale blue hydrangeas mixed with sunflowers. Mason jars overflowing with more flowers were strewn around the event. Everything was grown by Cow Apple Horticulture.
“It was beautiful and colorful because of Margee’s flowers,” said Pate, who described her marriage to Taylor Pate as “very DIY.” For the reception held at Rosy’s Jazz Hall, the couple produced the music playlist and decorations and a friend photographed the festivities.
Pate, who now lives in Austin, said she wasn’t very specific about the types of flowers she wanted for her big day. “I knew I wanted hydrangeas involved, and Margee did a great job of making what I wanted look like a wedding bouquet, but not like any wedding bouquet I’d ever seen.
“When the flowers arrived, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, the bouquets are beautiful.'”